Jonathan Harr

Jonathan Harr

Fellow: Awarded 2010

Field of Study: General Nonfiction

Competition: US & Canada

Known for his exhaustive research and remarkable narrative skills, Jonathan Harr is a nonfiction writer whose first book, A Civil Action (Random House, 1995), earned him a National Book Critics Award, the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Award, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, and the Scribes Award, among many other honors. It took Mr. Harr eight years to complete that book, during which time he had direct access to the principal figures in the lawsuit as it worked its way through the legal system. The book follows the development of a case against the W. R. Grace Company brought by eight families who blamed its reckless dumping of chemicals in their town’s water supply for the death of their children. More than a dry rehashing of the legal technicalities, A Civil Action richly develops portraits of the participants on both sides of the case as they move from pretrial, through the nine-month trial, its lengthy appeal, and the final resolution. In addition to the slew of awards it garnered, A Civil Action is now required reading in many law schools across the country and was made into a movie starring John Travolta.

Ten years later, Random House published his second book: The Lost Painting recreated the events surrounding the disappearance for centuries of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, and its rediscovery in Rome and the piecing together of its provenance in 1990. Once again immersing himself in the subject, he spent five years in Italy, learning the language so he himself could interview the people involved rather than work through an interpreter. The “rich and wonderful book,” as Bruce Handy described it in his review in the New York Times (November 13, 2005), was selected as one of the ten best books of 2005 by that newspaper.

Jonathan Harr applies the same rigorous investigative techniques and great storytelling skills to the many articles he has contributed to New England Monthly, where he worked as a staff writer from 1984 to 1986, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker. His journalism has been honored with the Investigative Reporters & Editors Award (1985), the William Allen White Investigative and Local Coverage awards (1985), the Scripter Award (1999), and two National Magazine Award finalist nominations (1997 and 2000), among others.

His Guggenheim Fellowship project is an outgrowth of one such article he wrote for the New Yorker entitled “Lives of the Saints.” For that article he spent six weeks living with and interviewing both the UN’s Emergency Response Team working in Chad and the more than a quarter-million refugees from the Darfur genocide. He is now embedded with an Emergency Response Team and will follow several major deployments, providing an eyewitness account of its efforts and exploring what drives the team members to sacrifice so much and to put themselves at risk for those displaced by war.